The Teddy Bear – Christmas with Polio

by Willa Condy, Trail, BC

1927 had been a rough year for Mrs. Lizzie Brown. A widow, raising two small children with help from her older kids Lizzie had her hands full.
That summer there was an outbreak of Polio. Polio or Poliomyelitis is an infectious disease caused by a virus, and used to be known as “infantile paralysis” because it largely affected children under five.
Most cases were mild but not all. When the virus got into the nervous system, it became dangerous. Polio can permanently damage the nerve cells controlling muscles, causing weakness in some limbs, or even paralysis.
The worst impacted would end up in iron lungs, an earlier version of a ventilator, needing the machine to breathe. The patient would be encased in the iron lung, with just their head outside left laying facing the ceiling as the machine would breath for them.
Similar to ventilators now they didn’t have enough iron lungs for the population, in 1927 the province of Ontario only had one.
The summer of 1927 Lizzie had taken her children out of Trail and gone up to Robson, thinking that would keep her girls safe. It didn’t.
Her youngest child Maisie contracted the disease. It was a rough time for the family.
The doctor told her that Maisie would probably not walk again. That the family should invest in a wheelchair.
Lizzie Brown was a stubborn character. She also had a double dose of pride. The family was broke and couldn’t afford a wheelchair. When Maisie was well enough to get out of bed, an old baby carriage was modified and holes for Maisie’s legs were cut in to help move her around.
Sheila Brown recalled how her life changed after her baby sister contracted polio. She would come home from school and give her mother a break entertaining and caring for her sister. It was a lot of responsibility but Sheila never complained.
That Christmas there was not much under the Brown’s Christmas tree.
Then a magical box was delivered to their doorstep. Fifty years later Sheila still recalled seeing that box and the food and toys it contained. It had been sent by a local charity. Most families would have been grateful but the widow Brown had a different reaction.
I think Sheila thought the little teddy bear would have been perfect for her kid sister. I am not sure if she thought there might be another toy or two in the basket.
The Brown’s never went through the basket. Lizzie contacted the charity and they came and picked up the basket.
You would have thought Sheila or Maisie would have pitched a fit over losing the toys. They didn’t.
The Brown family made due with the little they had and enjoyed celebrating with their family that year. But Sheila never forgot about that teddy bear.
Maisie had a stubborn streak like her mother. No one had told her she wouldn’t walk again and she not only walked but also danced. She did deal with post polio as an adult but she defied the odds.
Polio hit hard in 1927 and continued to infect and impact people with waves of infections through to the 1950’s.
Before that in the 1920’s and 1930’s people were desperate for answers and to prevent Polio. That led to trying different things. In 1927 the provinces stockpiled convalescent serum made from spinal fluid despite little evidence that it worked as treatment or prevention. It didn’t work. Next was a nasal spray developed and tested in the United States. In 1937 Ontario tested the nasal spray and found it didn’t help. It did remove children’s sense of smell and taste.
There was no way to control the virus until an effective vaccine was produced by Jonas Salk, an American scientist. In 1949 Jonathan Salk produced an inactive vaccine that seemed to work on animals. It needed to be tested and the Connaught Medical Research Laboratories, part of the University of Toronto stepped up with a synthetic medium called Medium 199 that solved Salk’s issues as it was a safe medium to deliver the vaccine. It also allowed a way to manufacture and produce large amounts of the vaccine.
Human trials began and in 1954 the trial of the vaccine involved 1.8 million children. The trials were halted in the United States when 79 children given the vaccine developed polio. It turned out there were errors in the manufacturing of the vaccine given to the children. It created an ethical issue in Canada.
Should the vaccine testing be halted? The Canadian Prime Minister wanted to stop the program but Paul Martin Sr., Canada’s Minister of National Health and Welfare, who himself had polio in 1907 went to bat for the vaccine. His son Paul Martin Junior, later to become Canada’s P.M., had contracted polio in 1946. His influence kept the trials and the vaccine on track. The Salk vaccine was a game changer. Many children received a shot for polio up to the 1960’s when an oral vaccine was produced by Albert Bruce Sabin in the 1960s to replace it. Connaught was also involved in trials of the Sabin vaccine.

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